Eight months after Germany captain Philipp Lahm lifted the golden trophy in Rio de Janeiro, the 2018 World Cup cycle is set to kick off on grounds far less hallowed than the Estádio do Maracanã.
The process that will whittle a record entry of 209 nations down to 32 (including host Russia) has to start somewhere, and on Thursday (3 a.m. ET) it will begin at the 5,000-seat national stadium in Dili, the capital of East Timor. There, the 187th-ranked hosts, nicknamed O Sol Nascente—“The Rising Sun”—will entertain Mongolia in the opener of their two-game series. A couple hours later, Cambodia and Macau will kick off in Phnom Penh.
In all, 12 Asian nations will begin qualification on Thursday, from underachieving India—a country of 1.2 billion people that’s never played in a World Cup—to tiny Bhutan, which sits 209th and last in FIFA’s monthly ranking. Bhutan has won one official match in the past decade.
The survivors of the six home-and-home series will move on to Asia’s second round, which will feature eight groups of five teams each. Those double round robins will be contested from June through March 2016.
The first round schedule:
East Timor v Mongolia, Dili
Cambodia v Macau, Phnom Penh
Sri Lanka v Bhutan, Colombo
Chinese Taipei v Brunei, Kaohsiung City
India v Nepal, Guwahati
Yemen v Pakistan, Doha (Qatar)
Mongolia v East Timor, Ulan Bator
Nepal v India, Kathmandu
Bhutan v Sri Lanka, Thimphu
Pakistan v Yemen, Lahore
Macau v Cambodia, Taipa
Brunei v Chinese Taipei, Bandar Seri Begawan
CONCACAF is next up. Fourteen teams will contest home-and-home series March 22-31, with the winners moving on to the second round to be played in June. Among the teams scheduled to enter at that stage is Canada, which will meet the winner of this month’s series between the British Virgin Islands and Dominica.
The U.S., Mexico, Costa Rica, Honduras, Panama and Trinidad & Tobago will enter the fray in the fourth round, which will comprise three, four-team groups. The draw is scheduled for July 25 and games will kick off in early November. In the past, the semifinal stage of CONCACAF qualifying didn’t begin until the second summer after the preceding World Cup. The Hexagonal is scheduled to start in November 2016.
UEFA will turn to World Cup qualifying following the 2016 European Championship in France. Africa and South America will commence in October 2015 and Oceania begins in June, when American Samoa, Cook Islands, Samoa and Tonga will compete for one spot in the second round. Their journey won’t end in Russia, but at least they get to start one.